Cocaine

What Is Cocaine

cocain image Cocaine refers to the drug in a powder form or crystal form.1 The powder is usually mixed with substances such as corn starch, talcum powder and/or sugar or other drugs such as procaine (a local anaesthetic) or amphetamines.

Extracted from coca leaves, cocaine was originally developed as a painkiller. It is most often sniffed, with the powder absorbed into the bloodstream through the nasal tissues. It can also be ingested or rubbed into the gums.

To more rapidly absorb the drug into the body, abusers inject it, but this substantially increases the risk of overdose. Inhaling it as smoke or vapour speeds absorption with less health risk than injection.

"You believe that coke will increase your perceptions, that it will allow you to surpass yourself, that you will be able to control things. It’s bloody nonsense. After a while you don’t pay your bills anymore, you don’t wash yourself anymore, you give up your friends, your family. You will become defenceless and alone." —Nigel

A Deadly white powder

Cocaine is one of the most dangerous drugs known to man. Once a person begins taking the drug, it has proven almost impossible to become free of its grip physically and mentally. Physically it stimulates key receptors (nerve endings that sense changes in the body) within the brain that, in turn, create a euphoria to which users quickly develop a tolerance. Only higher dosages and more frequent use can bring about the same effect.

Today, cocaine is a worldwide, multibillion-dollar enterprise. Users encompass all ages, occupations and economic levels, even schoolchildren as young as eight years old.

Cocaine use can lead to death from respiratory (breathing) failure, stroke, cerebral haemorrhage (bleeding in the brain) or heart attack. Children of cocaine-addicted mothers come into the world as addicts themselves. Many suffer birth defects and many other problems.

Despite its dangers, cocaine use continues to increase—likely because users find it so difficult to escape from the first steps taken down the long dark road that leads to addiction.


  1. In its crystal form, it is called crack cocaine. For more information see The Truth About Crack Cocaine in this series.

Street Names Cocaine

  • Aunt Nora
  • Bernice
  • Binge
  • Blow
  • C
  • Charlie
  • Coke
  • Dust
  • Flake
  • Mojo
  • Nose candy
  • Paradise
  • Sneeze
  • Sniff
  • Snow
  • Toot
  • White

Children: The Most Innocent Victims of Cocaine

Cocaine related birth defectsOne often hears the statement, “Yes, I take drugs, but that’s my business!” But drug use always has its innocent victims, from those who become prey of addicts seeking through desperate means to finance their drug habit, to those who die in traffic accidents caused by drivers under the influence.

The most tragic victims of cocaine are babies born to mothers who use the drug during pregnancy. In the United States alone, tens of thousands of cocaine-exposed babies are born in a year. Those not addicted often suffer from a variety of physical problems which can include premature birth, low birthweight, stunted growth, birth defects and damage to the brain and nervous system.

Low-birthweight babies are twenty times more likely to die in their first month of life than normal-weight babies, and they face an increased risk of lifelong disabilities such as mental retardation and brain damage.

The impact on society of this human tragedy has yet to be fully measured.

A Short History

What began as a religious tradition in the Andes has turned into abuse throughout the world.

Coca is one of the oldest, most potent and most dangerous stimulants of natural origin. Three thousand years before the birth of Christ, ancient Incas in the Andes chewed coca leaves to get their hearts racing and to speed their breathing to counter the effects of living in thin mountain air.

Native Peruvians chewed coca leaves only during religious ceremonies. This taboo was broken when Spanish soldiers invaded Peru in 1532. Forced Indian labourers in Spanish silver mines were kept supplied with coca leaves because it made them easier to control and exploit.

Cocaine was first isolated (extracted from coca leaves) in 1859 by German chemist Albert Niemann. It was not until the 1880s that it started to be popularised in the medical community.

Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud.

Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, who used the drug himself, was the first to broadly promote cocaine as a tonic to cure depression and sexual impotence.

In 1884, he published an article entitled “Über Coca” (About Coke) which promoted the “benefits” of cocaine, calling it a “magical” substance.

Freud, however, was not an objective observer. He used cocaine regularly, prescribed it to his girlfriend and his best friend and recommended it for general use.

While noting that cocaine had led to “physical and moral decadence,” Freud kept promoting cocaine to his close friends, one of whom ended up suffering from paranoid hallucinations with “white snakes creeping over his skin.”

He also believed that “For humans the toxic dose (of cocaine) is very high, and there seems to be no lethal dose.” Contrary to this belief, one of Freud’s patients died from a high dosage he prescribed.

In 1886, the popularity of the drug got a further boost when John Pemberton included coca leaves as an ingredient in his new soft drink, Coca-Cola. The euphoric and energising effects on the consumer helped to skyrocket the popularity of Coca-Cola by the turn of the century.

From the 1850s to the early 1900s, cocaine and opium-laced elixirs (magical or medicinal potions), tonics and wines were broadly used by people of all social classes. Notable figures who promoted the “miraculous” effects of cocaine tonics and elixirs included inventor Thomas Edison and actress Sarah Bernhardt. The drug became popular in the silent film industry and the pro-cocaine messages coming out of Hollywood at that time influenced millions.

Cocaine use in society increased and the dangers of the drug gradually became more evident. Public pressure forced the Coca-Cola company to remove the cocaine from the soft drink in 1903.

By 1905, it had become popular to snort cocaine and within five years, hospitals and medical literature had started reporting cases of nasal damage resulting from the use of this drug.

In 1912, the United States government reported 5,000 cocaine-related deaths in one year and by 1922, the drug was officially banned.

In the 1970s, cocaine emerged as the fashionable new drug for entertainers and businesspeople. Cocaine seemed to be the perfect companion for a trip into the fast lane. It “provided energy” and helped people stay “up.”

At some American universities, the percentage of students who experimented with cocaine increased tenfold between 1970 and 1980.

In the late 1970s, Colombian drug traffickers began setting up an elaborate network for smuggling cocaine into the US.

Traditionally, cocaine was a rich man’s drug, due to the large expense of a cocaine habit. By the late 1980s, cocaine was no longer thought of as the drug of choice for the wealthy. By then, it had the reputation of America’s most dangerous and addictive drug, linked with poverty, crime and death.

In the early 1990s, the Colombian drug cartels produced and exported 500 to 800 tons of cocaine a year, shipping not only to the US but also to Europe and Asia. The large cartels were dismantled by law enforcement agencies in the mid-1990s, but they were replaced by smaller groups—with more than 300 known active drug smuggling organisations in Colombia today.

As of 2008, cocaine had become the second most trafficked illegal drug in the world.

Effects of Cocaine

What are the short-term effects of cocaine?

Cocaine causes a short-lived, intense high that is immediately followed by the opposite—intense depression, edginess and a craving for more of the drug. People who use it often don’t eat or sleep properly. They can experience greatly increased heart rate, muscle spasms and convulsions. The drug can make people feel paranoid,1 angry, hostile and anxious—even when they aren’t high.

Regardless of how much of the drug is used or how frequently, cocaine increases the risk that the user will experience a heart attack, stroke, seizure or respiratory (breathing) failure, any of which can result in sudden death.

What are the long-term effects of cocaine?

The phrase “dope fiend” was originally coined many years ago to describe the negative side effects of constant cocaine use. As tolerance to the drug increases, it becomes necessary to take greater and greater quantities to get the same high. Prolonged daily use causes sleep deprivation and loss of appetite. A person can become psychotic and begin to experience hallucinations.

As cocaine interferes with the way the brain processes chemicals, one needs more and more of the drug just to feel “normal.” People who become addicted to cocaine (as with most other drugs) lose interest in other areas of life.

Coming down from the drug causes depression so severe that a person will do almost anything to get the drug—even commit murder.

And if he or she can’t get cocaine, the depression can get so intense it can drive the addict to suicide.

Short-Term Effects

  • Loss of appetite
  • Increased heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature
  • Contracted blood vessels
  • Increased rate of breathing
  • Dilated pupils
  • Disturbed sleep patterns
  • Nausea
  • Hyperstimulation
  • Bizarre, erratic, sometimes violent behaviour
  • Hallucinations, hyper-excitability, irritability
  • Tactile hallucination that creates the illusion of bugs burrowing under the skin
  • Intense euphoria
  • Anxiety and paranoia
  • Depression
  • Intense drug craving
  • Panic and psychosis
  • Convulsions, seizures and sudden death from high doses (even one time)

Long-Term Effects

  • Permanent damage to blood vessels of heart and brain
  • Cocaine causes heart, kidney, brain and lung damage.
  • High blood pressure, leading to heart attacks, strokes, and death
  • Liver, kidney and lung damage
  • Destruction of tissues in nose if sniffed
  • Respiratory failure if smoked
  • Infectious diseases and abscesses if injected
  • Malnutrition, weight loss
  • Severe tooth decay
  • Auditory and tactile hallucinations
  • Sexual problems, reproductive damage and infertility (for both men and women)
  • Disorientation, apathy, confused exhaustion
  • Irritability and mood disturbances
  • Increased frequency of risky behaviour
  • Delirium or psychosis
  • Severe depression
  • Tolerance and addiction (even after just one use)
  • “Don’t touch cocaine. I spent two years in jail because of this drug. And when I got out, life - was so hard I started taking the drug again. I know 10 girls who became prostitutes because of - coke. It’s much more extreme and degrading than we believe. At the time we don’t realise to - what degree it destroys us.” —Shawne

  1. paranoid: suspicious, distrustful or afraid of other people.

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